THE traditional funeral flouts the sustainable ethos: it consigns hundreds of euro worth of non-renewable resources to the ground, tops it off with a concrete memorial, then renders that plot of land unusable.
The Woodbrook natural burial ground, in Killane, Co. Wexford, is the only one of its kind in the country.
Here, you won’t find serried rows of plots, manicured lawns and mismatched headstones. The burial ground lies beside a wooded area interspersed with meadowlands. There are wildflowers everywhere, the grass is thick and rangy, and young saplings have been planted at careful intervals. Each grave has a tree, and, instead of a large granite memorial, there are simple, wooden markers. Wooden benches have been placed throughout the grounds.
Colin McAteer, of the Green Graveyard Company, says that the idea began with coffins. Traditional coffins are made from either imported oak or chipboard and veneer. They have plastic, imitation-brass handles and are often held together with a formaldehyde glue.
McAteer’s idea was simple: a more sustainable, cheaper alternative to a coffin, especially when you’re buying it to bury it.
As his environmentally friendly coffin business developed, McAteer began to think about the next logical step.
“The model of a natural burial ground works that bit cheaper, because you don’t have to put up a massive headstone and, also, there’s less maintenance involved,” McAteer says.
“All you have to do is top the grass twice a year, and it’s a much more natural setting.”
McAteer’s pricing is, he says, in line with local authority charges. A single plot is €910, a double is €1,760, and an ashes plot will cost €340.
So far, Woodbrook has overseen 36 funerals, while 150 plots have been reserved.
Most of these burials have been on demand, rather than through reservation, though the numbers booking plots have been rising steadily. McAteer says that following a funeral, he receives a raft of pre-bookings from ‘mourners’ who have seen the grounds and been impressed.
“Money’s tight, at the minute, and probably buying a grave space in advance is the last thing on people’s minds. A lot of people just let their wishes be known that this is where they want to go to, and it’s up to the family, then, to take care of them,” he says.
There’s no such thing as a typical funeral in Woodbrook, says McAteer. “We get funerals where two people are in attendance, and funerals with 200 people. We get funerals where there’s lot of church involvement, and we get funerals where there’s no church involvement.”
While the grounds are not consecrated, individual graves are blessed. While some services will not differ markedly from the traditional funeral, McAteer says they also have ‘fun’ funerals.
“This is where people want a bit of life and a bit of colour; drums beating and music playing, that type of thing.
“Some funeral directors have been taken aback by what can be done at a funeral. It doesn’t all have to be sombre,” McAteer says.
Many services incorporate a round of applause or a ‘three cheers’ in celebration of the life.
At a recent service, McAteer worried that the ‘celebration’ might go too far. “Halfway through, people came out with rolled-up cigarettes, and both myself and my co-workers thought we were all going to have ‘whacky baccy’, as one of us put it, smoked at the place. It just turned out to be your man’s favourite cigarette,” he says.
Twenty years before Peter Hegarty died, he was walking through the Glen of the Downs, in Co Wicklow, with his wife, Elizabeth Fitzgerald.
“I remember, he looked around at the trees,” says Elizabeth, “and he said, ‘I’d love to be buried somewhere like here’.”
Peter became ill in 2004 and, as the illness progressed, deciding on his final resting place became an issue. Both Elizabeth and Peter remembered the conversation at the Glen of the Downs, and Peter reiterated his desire to be buried somewhere like that.
“He said that what he would like is to be buried naturally and he would like to be able to nourish a tree. He would like to be able to return to the earth,” she says.
At the time, Elizabeth didn’t think it would be possible. They lived in Donegal, where the only burial options were the conventional ones.
“We were thinking the only option was to have him cremated and have his ashes spread under a tree,” she says.
It was a compromise that neither was happy with it, not least because both also wanted his final resting place to be sacred. Elizabeth had read about plans to open a natural burial ground, but nothing appeared to have come of it.
Then, two weeks before Peter died, she was back online, checking to see if anything had changed.
“I discovered that the Green Graveyard had opened in the October. We were so excited. Peter knew he was dying, at that stage, he knew he only had a couple of weeks. We looked at it and it met all our requirements.
“It didn’t matter that it was down in Wexford, that didn’t matter at all. And it made such a difference to Peter’s dying that he knew he was going to be able to return to the earth in a natural form. He wasn’t embalmed, we didn’t do anything like that. We got a wicker coffin from Green Coffins Ireland. He chose it himself from the website. And it made such a difference, an amazing difference, to Peter and to me,” Elizabeth says.
The service was hardly traditional. In keeping with Peter’s wishes, there was no religious involvement. Poems were said and songs were sung; Elizabeth orchestrated proceedings herself.
“For us, it was a very joyful occasion. It was more of a celebration, really, and definitely far less sombre. It was all about Peter,” she says.
On his anniversary, the family travelled to Wexford and had a picnic in the burial ground.
“My grandson was running around, playing with his uncles. It’s got lovely wooden seats around, you can sit, you can read a book… I go down and I have a picnic blanket, I have a flask, and I sit there and I spend time with Peter.”